Category: Opera

Review: The Rug

A satirical dissection of the angry white man

By Samuel Barson

An angry white man has a tantrum about how difficult it is being a white man. No, this is not parliamentary question time, this is Ben Grant’s electropera The Rug.

With a running time of just 45 minutes, The Rug is a feverish and hysterical satire on the so-called ‘plight’ of the modern white man.

Ben Grant, a white male himself, does a respectful job with the commentary he makes on his own demographic. He is self-aware and has clearly done much research on Australia’s current situation, as well as its history of racial prejudice. It took some time to get used to his performance style, but once comfortable with what he was doing, it was a solid and clever solo performance.

Herbz’s production design and Paul Lim’s lighting design were exuberant, unpredictable and strangely glamorous. The dramatic design complimented the over-dramatic white man who was whining and prancing around the stage.

Rah Creation’s set design was kindly simple, allowing the attention to be on Grant’s performance, while still serving his choreography when necessary.

The Rug is certainly not your typical piece of theatre, but rather a greatly refreshing one. It was exciting to see regularly visited themes like privilege tackled in such an irregular and entertaining way. A must see for lovers of the absurd.

The Rug is being performed at La Mama Courthouse 31 October – 11 November. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9347 6142.

Photograph: Pier Carthew

 

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Review: Pelléas and Mélisande

Elemental and mysterious – Victorian Opera faithfully restages Debussy classic

By Lois Maskiell

The cruelly romantic Pelléas and Mélisande as produced by the Victorian Opera is an enchanting and loyal rendition of Claude Debussy’s only completed opera. Elegantly and simply staged, this tragic tale reaches the subconscious with its haunting orchestral score and celebrated motifs. Debussy’s ingenious ability to transform content across artistic mediums is revealed in the fact this opera is based on Belgian playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play of 1893. Belonging to the turn of the century, it is often associated with impressionist and symbolist movements in art and literature respectively, particularly due to its allusions to the natural world.

Caught in a web of duty, longing and revenge, Golaud (Samuel Dundas), his wife Mélisande (Siobhan Stagg) and half-brother and Pelléas (Angus Wood) form an ill-fated love triangle. After Golaud discovers the distraught Mélisande lost in the forest, he claims her as his bride and brings her to the castle where Pelléas and his parents Arkel and Genevieve (David Parkin and Liane Keegan) reside. As Mélisande passes increasing amounts of time with Pelléas, their secret relationship transitions from one of playfulness to passion before concluding with a strike of Golaud’s sword.

Palais Theatre’s ornate proscenium arch frames a fairly stark set which, excluding three spinning wooden structures, features only an enormous white sheet cast across the back of the stage. As smoke drifts from the wings, Joseph Mercurio’s exquisite lighting illuminates the backdrop establishing an ethereal atmosphere which grows increasingly lunar as soon as the orchestra and performers begin. Richard Mills conducts with great momentum and attention to silence; delicate melodic fragments sweep throughout the theatre evoking both the forest and confines of a gloomy castle. A highlight was the timpani which added foreboding depth to the score’s loftier sounds.

Capturing the famous image of Mélisande letting her hair down and Pelléas succumbing to passion, the beguiling modesty presented is indeed suggestive. Soprano, Siobhan Stagg is sublimely cast as Mélisande. Stagg brings complexity to such a belittled character who is constantly reminded of her timidity and childlike qualities by the male characters. Bass, David Parkin as Arkel reaches allegorical stature with his unearthly low notes. The rich baritone of Dundas fuels a charged Golaud, which contrasts to tenor Wood who stars in the more reserved role of Pelléas.

Director, Elizabeth Hill ensures each scene is clear and allows relationships, affiliations and individual characters to be expressed in beautiful unison with the music. While I wanted the chemistry between Mélisande and Pelléas to be more obvious, the strength and talent of each individual performer compensated for any great shortcomings.

Experiencing Pelléas and Mélisande, I felt as if I was suspended in twilight for the show’s entire duration. It left me feeling both mystified and perplexed by its disarming ability to enchant despite having such cruelty at its core. Victorian Opera has achieved an idyllic marriage of text, score and mise-en-scène with this production that deserves a much longer season.

Pelléas and Mélisande is being performed 11 and 13 October at Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 136 100. 

Photograph: Jeff Busby

 

Review: William Tell

Victorian Opera does justice to Rossini’s monumental opera

By Leeor Adar

For having one of the most recognised overtures globally, it is a surprise to learn that Rossini’s William Tell left Australian shores in 1876 and only returns now in 2018 (Halley’s comet has a better track record).

At 5 hours in length, it is certainly palatable to learn that Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, has cut the production down to 3 hours with “unfussy, lucid staging”. The content of William Tell is explosive and powerful. It has the grandiosity in concept of Wagner’s work, but is concerned less with magic and more with the good fight of everyday citizens.

Guillaume Tell is a Swiss man fighting for the freedom of his people from the oppression of Austrian forces, and with scores of cast and chorus, the production needs one hell of a baritone to command the stage. Armando Noguera as Guillaume Tell is a revelation; he embodies the power, charisma and magnanimity to play the hero of this tale, and does so with enormous spirit. His voice is superb, and he is fortunate to be joined by the mesmerising Colombian tenor, Carlos E. Bárcenas, who plays Arnold, the son of the late elder Melcthal (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), is torn between the duty to his people and to his love for the Austrian princess Mathilde (Gisela Stille).

Bárcenas also had the mountainous task of the vocal range required of his role, and he managed the most gorgeous notes with real feeling. The feeling unfortunately did not translate between his character and that of Stille’s, and it was the love between father and son that really stole the show in the performances between Noguera and the marvellous soprano Alexandra Flood (Guillaume’s son Jemmy).

Victorian Opera 2018 William Tell  © Jeff Busby (3)
Featuring Carlos E. Bárcenas and Gisela Stille. Photograph by Jeff Busby.

The tale follows the usual preparations for battle, and the tense encounters with darker forces; most notably, the infamous arrow to the apple scene, which left the audience wondering how Victorian Opera planned to stage such a complex magic trick. Unfortunately, the arrow did not pierce the apple, and it’s a surprise that Guillaume’s son was spared from the comically maniacal clutches of Austrian villain Gesler (Paolo Pecchioli). No doubt this will be rectified for future performances, and it will be a treat once achieved.

In terms of Rossini’s music, I would not say the production will be memorable for the sheer beauty of its pieces, despite an excellent orchestra conducted by the talented Mills. What will remain with me, however, is the large ensemble and its wonderful cohesion and power conveyed which was at times breathtaking. It is certainly an achievement by Director Rodula Gaitanou to maintain dramatic impact with such a vast cast. Having witnessed previous works of Victorian Opera, I would say this is a landmark for the company and showcases their capacity and ability to harness such a wealth of talented creatives from around the world.

Given the scarcity of performances in over one hundred years, I would recommend you take yourselves to catch the spectacle. William Tell will continue to run until 19 July at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling Ticketmaster on 1300 723 038.

Victorian Opera Presents CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Wonderfully weird and charming

By Caitlin McGrane

Victorian Opera’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is a deeply moving portrayal of youth, the passage of time, and the pain of loss. Janáček’s immense skill is clearly evident in the juxtaposition of the soaring score and the conversational libretto. It struck me as a kind of fever dream combination of Animal Farm and the 1996 live-action film of Wind in the Willows featuring most of the Monty Python cast – a wicked combination of socialism, humour and fuzzy critters keeping the sting in the tail of the Vixen.

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I adored the score, and conductor Jack Symonds and his orchestra masterfully kept the production moving even during some slow moments. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the libretto, the opera could have been performed entirely without words and I admit I would have enjoyed it just as much. Despite the serious subject matter, the production is playful and light; director Stuart Maunder has clearly had a great deal of fun during the creative process, and it shows most clearly during the moments when the animals and insects are on stage.

The opera opens with a whole forest of animals and bugs anthropomorphised by the Adult and Children’s Choruses beautifully setting the stage for the feverish weirdness that is coming. The animal costumes (Roger Kirk), particularly the frog (Lisha Ooi), are magnificent, and are honestly one of the highlights of the show. The eponymous young Vixen (Ruby Ditton) plays with her mother (Celeste Lazarenko), and is captured by the Forester (Barry Ryan) as a pet for his children. She grows up, and the adult Vixen (Lazarenko) transforms into a Marxist feminist – taunting the other animals for their backwards views and yearning for her freedom. After a wildly funny hen massacre (RIP the marvellous Cockerel) she flees, meets a charming Fox (Antoinette Halloran) and falls madly in love.

Meanwhile, the Forester basically falls into melancholy drinking with his friends the Schoolmaster (Brenton Spiteri) and the Parson (Jeremy Kleeman), ruminating on the missing Vixen and mercilessly taunting the Schoolmaster for loving a local gypsy woman Tyrenka (Danielle Calder). Frankly, I could have done without the weird human subplots: the Vixen’s story was far more interesting than all the male human characters combined, and I really didn’t need the inclusion of Tyrenka’s wedding to the unfortunately sappy Harašta (valiantly portrayed by Samuel Dundas).

The whole ensemble performed wonderfully and with a sense of mischievous playful fun, particularly Lazarenko and Halloran (who I was secretly hoping would be an anthropomorphised lesbian fox duo). Despite such misgivings, there’s so much to be charmed by in this opera: the choruses perform their animal alter-egos with inventive physicality, and the singing from every cast member is an absolute delight.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the weirdness of Cunning Little Vixen, and it seemed the opera’s playfulness transferred to the audience, as they suppressed giggles both times the cast sang ‘Looks like she has a new muff’. I’d recommend this show for anyone who enjoys inventive costumes and/or subtle proto-feminism: it was a beautifully crafted ride.

Cunning Little Vixen is now playing at the Arts Centre. For tickets or more information visit: http://www.victorianopera.com.au/season-2017/cunning-little-vixen/

Victorian Opera Presents THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

Clever, charming and tons of fun

By Leeor Adar

Squeals and giggles erupted from the audience of Victorian Opera’s The Princess and the Pea on Saturday afternoon. The audience is very young – the youngest I’ve seen for the Victorian Opera, and it fills me with gladness. The lingering question for opera remains as to how to attract future generations, and the Fables for Season 2017 is an operatic call to arms for Victoria’s smallest residents.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is reimagined under the clever guardianship of Victorian Opera’s developing artists Candice MacAllister (Design) and Alastair Clark (Direction). This colourful and vibrant production is short and sweet at only 40 minutes, and enough to ensure the little attendees don’t go stir crazy. Composed by the late Weimar Germany’s Austrian-born Ernst Toch, the singers clearly take pleasure in performing to their craft to such a young audience.

This production was a clever way to present the tale and the marvels of the opera to its young audience. Set as a show on television station, ‘Mythical Mysteries!’ the story is presented with the humour of forgotten lines, dropped scripts and the hustle and bustle of a television set. It’s slapstick and generally silly, but the appealing performances of the cast ensured that despite the German accents, the audience understood the action. MacAllister’s set and costume design was bright and artful, which consisted of a giant television frame that lifted the veil to behind the scenes.

The story follows as expected, with a desperately in love Prince (James Egglestone), a humbly dressed Princess (Olivia Cranwell), and a Queen (Kathryn Radcliffe) who has high hopes for her princely boy. Looks are deceiving, as the moral of the story drums into the chirpy youngsters, and a plan concocted by the crafty and energetic TV Host (Dimity Shepherd) to plant a pea in the Princess’ mattress reveals the lost girl’s true identity… and they all lived happily after.

You can check out the Victorian Opera’s Fables 2017 season here: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/discover/seasons/victorian-opera-2017 which will showcase work that will entertain audiences of varying age groups.

Image by Charlie Kinross

Lyric Opera Presents THE JAPANESE PRINCESS

Delightful

By Joanna Simmons

Lyric Opera presents the first in its’ trio for the 2017 season, and Camille Saint Saens’ The Japanese Princess is a wonderful choice of work. Having never been performed in Australia; this one-act comic opera is accessible and excellent. The story is simple so the main feature is the music; played beautifully by the Lyric Chamber orchestra and sung by the experienced cast of three. It’s a treat for the ears, and with dialogue in English and subtitles for all the French Songs it defies any old notions that opera is dusty fat ladies warbling in foreign tongues for hours.

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We follow the story of Kornelis, an art student who becomes infatuated with all things Japanese, and much to his fiancée (and cousin in the libretto) Lena’s dismay, becomes obsessed with the portrait of a mysterious Japanese Princess, Ming (not a Japanese name.) Ming makes Lena question herself, her relationship and Kornelis’ sanity. The voluptuous orchestra ornately guides the story with a nod to the orient with songs with colourful language and robust emotions.

Lena, played by Kimberly Coleman (and alternated with Kate Macfarlane) was naturalistic and strong.  She plays up the comedy where needed and connects with the other players and the music. Robert Macfarlane as Cornelius’s (alternated with Hew Wagner) dulcet tenor tones were right on the money. I wish his acting was as strong, as there were a lot of comedic moments that could have been more detailed with facial expression and timing, and other moments that felt forced. Arisa Yura as Ming, is subtlely woven into the story and is captivating to watch. She dances skillfully with a fan, her delicate hands well placed; yet then does some turns and steps that break character and genre, which feels disjointed alongside the music and set.

The intricate set designed by Christina Logan Bell that feels like the inside of a Japanese fan or tea house, complete with tatami mats, is beautiful and memorable. It, combined with the well-plotted lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw, transports us to this wonderous other world. Lucy Wilkins’ costume design fits well with the set and the era, adding colour and beauty with Ming’s kimono, and a neutral- everyday feel to Cornelius and Lena. Director Miki Oikawa has tastefully bought this production out to be one that is accessible in our modern day, in partnership with artistic director and conductor Pat Miller, whose passion and knowledge is evident, and should be highly commended.

The part I loved the most about this show was the beginning, where Miller turned around from facing the orchestra and invited us to ensure that our phones weren’t going to disturb the performance, but encouraged us to use them, to share with people what we are doing, and push opera to become something that is spoken about, shared, liked, snapchatted, hashtagged and all. In our world of watching videos for 30 seconds before getting distracted, it can be difficult to produce theatre to challenge our palates whilst tickling them too. This show is engaging and enchanting, simple and satisfying for the ears and eyes.

Lyric Opera’s The Japanese Princess played at Chapel Off Chapel, 11-18 March, 2017

Image by Sarah Walker

Victorian Opera Presents THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

A classic reawakens

By Rachel Holkner

The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault is one of the classic fairy tales, and one of my least favourites with its thin plot and troublesome resolution. I was not familiar at all with Respighi‘s opera before seeing this production, but I enjoyed it immensely. The story is fast-moving and compelling, and the music delightful. It was originally written in 1922 for an Italian puppetry company and it has been brought into the twenty-first century quite cleverly by Victorian Opera‘s artistic director Richard Mills and director Nancy Black.

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A cast of singers dressed in contemporary attire recount the story as it is acted out by talented puppeteers manipulating some remarkable puppets designed and built by Joe Blanck. They moved about an uncluttered stage with a gothic atmosphere, gorgeously lit by Philip Lethlean throughout.

Solely responsible for the movement and action, the puppeteers threw themselves, and occasionally each other, around the stage. In particular the humour and physicality of the Prince (performed by Vincent Crowley, sung by Carlos E. Bárcenas), with his Dirty-Dancing-era Patrick Swayze bearing, was spectacular. In gradually losing his puppetry aspects until nothing more than a pocket square remained, this became one of the strongest moments of the show as The Prince shed the trappings of privileged life to succeed in his arduous journey of discovery.

A large part of the production effort went into the lavish and eye-catching puppets. Although the inspiration for their design is said to have come from Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen, there are clear layers of influence from other Golden-Age fairytale illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. There is some disjoint as a consequence, with the Blue Fairy being by far the weakest design in both shape and movement, yet one of the most prominent on stage. The smaller puppets such as the cat and spindle were far better developed, their movements lending Disney-esque moments of humour to the performance.

In bringing the story into the present – it is modern times apparently when the Princess is awoken –  there was the opportunity for the creative team to bring in some pop-culture references. This had a two-fold effect for me. Firstly I was annoyed that in trying to escape some of the less pleasant aspects today’s world they suddenly appeared on stage before me, and yet it gave a telling opportunity to reflect on that aforementioned “troublesome resolution”. The expectations for and treatment of young women today are at complete odds with the 1620s culture of the source tale. You could not conclude a story nowadays with a happy-ever-after via an non-consensual kiss. (Or more, should you choose to read further back than Perrault). Without giving anything away, on reflection, the recasting of Mister Dollar was very clever indeed.

The vocal performances of the entire cast were simply outstanding. Of especial note were the work of Elizabeth Barrow as the Blue Fairy and Raphael Wong as the King. One small wardrobe choice which did constantly irritate however was The King’s relaxed interpretation of the costumer’s memo as ‘casual wear’ instead of the neat casual the rest of the cast wore. I would hardly expect a King to ever be dressed in cargo pants and a hoodie.

The live score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Phoebe Briggs, was the finishing touch on this highly enjoyable evening. It would be a wonderful introduction to the world of opera, particularly for families.

Dates: 11-18 March 2017

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse

Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2017/opera/the-sleeping-beauty

Image by Charlie Kinross